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Schools, state should address testing radon requirement

About six school districts in Oakland County – including the Bloomfield Hills School District and Rochester Community Schools – regularly test their buildings for the presence of harmful radon gas, while the remaining public schools either don't feel it is necessary or aren't aware of the need.

To be clear, there are 28 public school districts in Oakland County, meaning there are hundreds of buildings where children will be starting classes this fall where the radioactive gas may be present. That doesn't include dozens of private schools where school-aged children will spend the majority of their days for the next dozen years. Still, most school districts believe their classrooms are safe, basing their assumptions on a limited number of their own samplings, at best. Or, worse, choosing not to sample simply because it's not a mandatory requirement by the state or federal government.

Despite such assumptions, there are about 600 cases of radon-related lung cancer deaths each year across Michigan, with the radioactive gas being the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind only smoking. Yet, because the Great Lakes State and southeast Michigan aren't traditionally known to have high levels of uranium, many school districts believe the presence of radon isn't likely and doesn't pose a health risk.

We disagree.

First off, we believe all students have the right to a safe and healthy environment in which to learn. Therefore, parents, teachers and other school employees should encourage schools to regularly conduct radon tests and undertake corrective actions, if necessary. And, because radon gas doesn't have any odor, taste or color, the only way to know for sure if it's present is through testing.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates at least one in five schoolrooms across the country has a short-term radon level above the federal level at which the EPA recommends schools take action. That's about 70,000 schoolrooms in use today. To ensure that radon isn't present, the EPA recommends all schools be tested for radon on a rotating five-year schedule. Yet, since the recommendation is only that, and not required, only about 20 percent of schools nationwide have done any testing.

Of the districts that responded in June to Downtown newsmagazine’s questions about radon testing, at least four that had tested for radon gas in the past said they didn't feel it was necessary to retest their schools in the future. Districts that had never tested for radon said it wasn't required, so they didn't feel the need to test, most often citing the lack of any underground classrooms or the existence of basements in general.

Such responses illustrate the lack of understanding of radon gas and its ability to enter a structure.

According to the EPA and environmental professionals, high levels of radon can occur in any indoor environment, with levels varying from building to building within the same district, as well as from room to room in any given building. In fact, the EPA states that "slab-on-grade" buildings, or those without basements, are frequently occupied rooms in contact with the ground. Therefore, a lack of a basement may actually increase the need for testing. Specifically, the EPA states, "Each frequently occupied room that is in contact with the ground should be measured because adjacent rooms can have significantly different levels of radon."

Also, the belief that one round of testing is enough to last the lifetime of a building is based on faulty logic. Radon levels may change during different seasons based on the use of heating and cooling systems, construction and other factors.

Understanding that radon levels may fluctuate throughout the school year based on weather, heating and cooling system changes, outside construction and other factors is important to note, as the majority of schools that opt out of testing cite such factors as the reason for their decisions.

Radon may enter groundwater, become stuck in pockets of gas in the soil, or enter buildings when the gas seeps up and enters a building through cracks in foundations, drains and other openings. Although most buildings draw little air from the soil, such small openings in an otherwise well-sealed building can help to increase radon levels, even if those levels are relatively low compared to outdoor air.

Further, while Oakland County is considered at lower risk for the presence of radon, the risk is considered higher than neighboring Wayne and Macomb counties. Consider also that the presence of radon gas doesn't necessarily follow municipal or governmental boundaries, but geology and changes in groundwater and soil.

For these reasons we encourage local public and private school districts to establish a radon testing program, if they have not done so already. Such a program should follow the EPA's recommendations of testing rooms on a five-year rotating schedule. Such a program can be undertaken on a realistic timeline and within a feasible budget if done on a regular basis.

It is when a district attempts to tackle all testing at one time that costs can quickly rise and become a burden for a school district. Such all-or-nothing practices not only fail to give an accurate and lasting sample of radon levels, they also serve to drive up costs for districts.

In the end, school districts should approach air quality testing, particularly that of radon, the same way they are now approaching lead contamination. By developing a long-term testing program to recognize issues and monitoring systems that can become contaminated, school districts will more likely ensure the longterm safety of students, rather than scrambling to control a crisis after it arrives.

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